Amnesty International campaign calls for better mining, manufacture, and disposal of electric vehicle batteries

golf electricWhile the Nordic EV Summit   in March 2019 showcased progress on the adoption of electric vehicles, Amnesty International used that backdrop to  issue a challenge to leaders in the electric vehicle industry –  to produce the world’s first completely ethical battery, free of human rights abuses within its supply chain, within five years.

It is not news that the mining of  cobalt and lithium, the two key minerals in batteries, has been linked to human rights abuses, environmental pollution, ecosystem destruction and indigenous rights violations.   Amnesty was amongst the first to document the child labour and human rights abuses with a report This is what we die for   in 2016,  updated in  2017 by an article,  “The Dark Side of Electric Cars: Exploitative Labor Practices”.  More recently, “Indigenous people’s livelihoods at risk in scramble for lithium, the new white goldappeared in The Ethical Corporation  (April 9), describing the human rights situation in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, which hold 60% of the world’s lithium reserves. The environmental impacts of deep-sea mining are also of concern.

In addition to the mining of raw materials, battery manufacturing has a high carbon footprint, with most of the current manufacturing concentrated in China, South Korea and Japan, where electricity generation remains dependent on coal and other polluting sources of power.

Finally, the issue of electronic waste, including batteries, has been the subject of several  reports:  From  the International Labour Organization :  in 2012,  Global Impact of E-waste: Addressing the Challenge and more recently,  Decent work in the management of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) , an Issues paper produced for a Global Dialogue Forum on Decent Work in the Management of Electrical and Electronic Waste in April 2019.  The 2019  report provides estimates of the workforce involved in some countries – led by China, with an estimated 690,000 workers in 2007, followed by up to 100,000 in Nigeria , followed by 60,000 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  The report deals mainly with occupational health and safety issues and includes an overview of international  e-waste regulation, as well as case studies of  the U.S., Argentina, China, India, Japan, Nigeria.  Similar discussions appear in  A New Circular Vision for Electronics Time for a Global Reboot , released by the E-waste Coalition at the 2019 World Economic Forum, and in a blog, Dead Batteries deserve a Second Life published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development on April 9.evcobalt-lithium-V2_1-supply-chain

Clearly, there are labour and environmental problems related to lithium-ion batteries and the green vehicles and electronic devices they power.  Recognizing  all these concerns, the new Amnesty International campaign is calling for:  improvement in human rights practices in mining, and  a prohibition on commercial deep-sea mining; disclosure and accounting for carbon in manufacturing, and for legal protection and enforcement of workplace rights such as health, equality and non-discrimination; finally for products to be designed and regulated to encourage re-use and penalize waste, with prevention of  illegal or dangerous export and dumping of batteries.

United Nations reports warn of health impacts of climate change, thawing Arctic

geo6 final 2019The Fourth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) convened from March 11 – 15 in Nairobi, Kenya, under the sombre cloud of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines which killed many, including Canadians, on their way to attend the meetings.

The flagship report, produced by 250 global scientists and experts, is the Sixth Global Environmental Outlook, which the UN press release calls “the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment on the state of the environment completed by the UN in the last five years .. warning that damage to the planet is so dire that people’s health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken.”  It warns that, without such urgent action,  cities and regions in Asia, the Middle East and Africa could see millions of premature deaths by 2050, with pollutants in freshwater systems leading to deaths through increased  anti-microbial resistance, as well as impacts on  male and female fertility and impaired neurodevelopment of children, from endocrine disruptors.  A 28-page  Summary for Policymakers   is available in multiple languages besides English, including French .  GEO6-NA_cover_large

The official documents from the UNEA meetings are compiled here , including the closing press release summary, “World pledges to protect polluted, degraded planet as it adopts blueprint for more sustainable future” .

Other reports relevant to Canada:

1.The Assessment and Data Report for North America is one of the regional reports, all of which are compiled here .

2.  Global Resources Outlook 2019: Natural Resources for the Future We Want    examines the economic benefits and environmental costs of resource use, and finds that all resource sectors combined (including agriculture, mining, forestry ) account for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions. Extraction and primary processing of metals and other minerals  is responsible for 20% of health impacts from air pollution and 26% of global carbon emissions. The report warns that without change,  resource demand would more than double to 190bn tonnes a year, greenhouse gases would rise by 40% and demand for land would increase by 20%.   A summary of the report appeared in The Guardian.

3.   With a forecast even more dire than the 2018  IPCC report, Global linkages: A graphic look at the changing Arctic  warns that even if global emissions were to halt overnight, winter temperatures in the Arctic would still increase 4 to 5°C by 2100 because  of  greenhouse gases already emitted and ocean heat storage. The UNEA report warns of the dangers of thawing permafrost, predicting that by  2050, four million people, and around 70% of today’s Arctic infrastructure, will be threatened.  However, a critique by  the Carbon Brief    disputes this particular conclusion within the UNEA report, and states that  if humanity can mobilize to hit a -2 degrees C target, “future Arctic winter warming will be around 0.5 to 5.0°C by the 2080s compared to 1986-2005 levels, much lower than the 5.0 to 9.0°C values stated in the report.” … “This means that much of the future warming in the Arctic will depend on our emissions over the 21st century, rather than being ‘locked in’, as the report claims.” The Carbon Brief analysis is summarized in The  Energy Mix .

 

Recommendations for Canada’s high growth industries, including natural resources and clean technology

Innovation report 2018On September 25, the federal Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development released a report:  The Innovation and Competitiveness Imperative: Seizing Opportunities for Growth,  with over-arching “signature” proposals in the consolidated report, and specific proposals in individual reports by six “high-growth potential” sectors: advanced manufacturing  , agri-food , clean technology , digital industries,  health and biosciences  , and resources of the future  .  These six groups had been identified by the Advisory Council for Economic Growth  , a body which has issued many of its own reports, including the 2017 reports,  The Path to Prosperity   and Learning Nation: Equipping Canada’s workforce with skills for the future   .

In this latest series of reports, the identified Sector groups were led by  “Economic Strategy Tables— which the government characterizes as “a new model for industry-government collaboration”.   Each “Table” consisted of a  Chair,  and approximately 15 industry experts, with consultants McKinsey & Company providing “fact-based research and analysis”.  The reports are unmistakably written by management/industry authors (replete with many references to “agility”,  “own the podium” and “sandboxes”). A deeper dive into two of the sector reports reveals very substantial recommendations, with common themes of best practice examples from other countries, Canada’s international competitiveness, Indigenous relationships, and  attention to workforce issues of skills gaps and diversity.

The Clean Technology Economic Table Report  proposes: “the ambitious, export-focused target of clean technology becoming one of Canada’s top five exporting industries, nearly tripling the sector’s current value for exports to $20 billion annually by 2025” –  a growth rate  of 11.4% per year on average.  The report makes recommendations under six categories, including financing, engagement  with Indigenous communities in partnership and co-development of clean technology initiatives, increased government procurement, regulation, and workforce issues. Greatest attention is given to the regulatory environment, with proposals for a “Regulatory Sandbox for Water Regulation” and a “Regulatory Sandbox for air quality and methane emissions regulation”.    “Ultimately, we will need as much innovation in our public policy tools as there is in technology to ensure progress on critical economic and environmental objectives.”  Regarding  workforce issues, the report recognizes that Clean Technology will compete for Scientific, Technology,  Engineering and Math ( STEM) skills, but highlights a particular shortage of soft skills required for entrepreneurship, business development, finance, advocacy, risk management and forecasting. It calls  for “work-integrated learning programs”, and better labour market data collection and dissemination. Without ever using the term “Just Transition”, it does call for “Opening streams of these programs for workers to re-skill”, and “Adding new eligibility criteria for these programs to promote an inclusive and diverse workforce”.

resources of the future coverThe  “Resources of the future” Table Report  examines the mining, forestry and energy industries; the tone is set in the introductory remarks which state: “While resource companies are committed to the highest environmental and safety performance, they are burdened with an inefficient and complex regulatory system that adds cost, delays projects and is not conducive to innovation.” Recommendations are set out in five thematic sections, including “agile regulations, strategic infrastructure, innovation for competitiveness, indigenous people and communities, and attracting and re-skilling talent.

The report notes the established issues of an aging and gender-biased workforce in natural resources and identifies automation and digital skills as a neglected and misunderstood  issue in the industry.  It proposes a “Resources Skills Council” which, notably,  would include labour unions, along with all levels of government, industry associations, universities and polytechnics.

Do electric vehicles create good green jobs? An Amnesty International report on Supply Chains says No

Tesla TruckNovember brought  exciting news about electric vehicles:  BYD,  one of China’s leading electric carmakers, announced that it will open an assembly plant in a yet-to-be-announced location in Ontario in 2018, (though according to the Globe and Mail article,   the new plant will only create about 40 jobs to start ).  Also in mid-November, Tesla revealed a concept design for  an  electric truck in an glitzy release by Elon Musk , and the Toronto Transit Commission announced its plan to buy its first electric buses, aiming for an  emissions-free fleet by 2040.    Unnoticed in the enthusiasm for these announcements was a report released by Amnesty International on November 15:    Time to Recharge: Corporate action and inaction to tackle abuses in the cobalt supply chain  which concludes : “ Major electronics and electric vehicle companies are still not doing enough to stop human rights abuses entering their cobalt supply chains, almost two years after an Amnesty International investigation exposed how batteries used in their products could be linked to child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).” (That earlier report was This is what we die for   released in January 2016) .

Under the heading “The Darker side of Green Technology”, Time to Recharge states: “Renault and Daimler performed particularly badly, failing to meet even minimal international standards for disclosure and due diligence, leaving major blind spots in their supply chains. BMW did the best among the electric vehicle manufacturers surveyed.”   Tesla was also surveyed and ranked for its human rights and supply chain management; Tesla’s policies are described in its response to Amnesty International here.  And further, Tesla has come in for suggestions of  anti-union attitudes  in “Critics Suggest Link to Union Drive After Tesla Fires 700+ Workers” , in  The Energy Mix (Oct. 23), and in an article in Cleantechnica , and for discriminatory policies in “The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry“, published in In these Times and re-posted in Portside.

The Amnesty International report is a result of a survey of 29 companies, including consumer electronics giants Apple, Samsung Electronics, Dell, Lenovo, and Microsoft, as well as electric vehicle manufacturers BMW, Renault and Tesla.  Questions in the survey were based on the five-step due diligence framework set out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas.  Detailed responses from many of the surveyed companies are here. 

A closer look at electric vehicle growth: impact on pollution, and labour conditions in the mines supplying raw materials

solar-power-1020194_1920The summer started with several “good news” stories about the surge of electric vehicles, such as “Starting in 2019, Volvo will use electricity to power every new model” from the Washington Post (July 5) , quoting Volvo’s CEO :  “This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car.”  Bloomberg Business Week, summarizing the findings of its latest New Energy forecast,  stated on July 7, “in just eight years, electric cars will be as cheap as gasoline vehicles, pushing the global fleet to 530 million vehicles by 2040″, and “Electric cars will outsell fossil-fuel powered vehicles within two decades as battery prices plunge, turning the global auto industry upside down and signaling economic turmoil for oil-exporting countries” .  On July 6,  France announced   it would end the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2040 ,  and on July 26 the U.K. released its Clean Air Plan, which included  a ban on the sale of new diesel and gas cars after 2040, with only electric vehicles available after that.

Response to the U.K. announcement is mixed.  In “Electric cars are not the solution to air pollution” Professor Frank Kelly, a professor of environmental health at King’s College London and chair of the government’s  Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants states that “The government’s plan does not go nearly far enough,” “Our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars.”  In his role as a member of  the Centre for London’s commission on the future of the capital’s roads and streets  ,    Professor Kelly provides more detail about the problem of particle pollution and states:  “London should lead in showing electric cars will not tackle air pollution”  in The Guardian (August 4).  His conclusion: “The safe and efficient movement of people around the city can only be achieved through a clean and expanded mass transit system served by buses, overground trains and the underground system – and as much active transport in the form of walking and cycling as is feasibly possible.”

Others are raising issues about electric vehicles on other grounds, specifically the environmental costs  and labour conditions of producing the lithium ion batteries that power them.  These are not new concerns:  Carla Lipsig Mumme and Caleb Goods raised the flag in June 2015 with “The battery revolution is exciting, but remember they pollute too”   in The Conversation.   In January 2016, Amnesty International published a detailed documentation of the hazardous working conditions and the use of child labour in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in  This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt  . (Cobalt is also used in mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices). The report  is available in English, French and Chinese from this link .

More recently,  “Politically charged: do you know where your batteries come from? ” appeared in The Conversation (July 26),   providing an overview of the geography , politics, and environmental impact of  lithium-ion battery raw materials. Briefly, the current major producers of lithium are Australia, Chile, Argentina and China, with Australia and Chile accounting for about 75% of the total. The main environmental concern, especially in Chile, is that the extraction can impact water supply in desert areas.  The article also looks at supply chain issues and states : “With almost half of the world’s cobalt ore reserves concentrated in Democratic Republic of Congo for the foreseeable future, and with a large proportion of refining capacity located in China, the supply chain could be more vulnerable.”  Not to mention the vulnerability of the miners Amnesty International has documented.

A  Canadian viewpoint on  the issue of supply:   “Clean Energy Spurs Lithium Rush, Demands Response to ‘Dirty Mining’” in the  Energy Mix (August 8). In the article, Financial Post columnist Peter Tertzakian states: “ it takes the equivalent of 15,000 cell phone batteries to make one battery for an electric car,” and “ramping up raw material inputs to build millions of car batteries a year fills the back of the envelope with scalability issues.” These supply issues may lead to a growth of “dirty mining” practices.  Will Canada be affected by the push for clean energy raw materials?  We do not currently produce lithium, although the article states that  engineers are trying to isolate it from tar sand/oil sand waste. We are a minor producer of other battery components,  graphite and cobalt, and the 3rd largest  producer of  nickel in the world.  According to Bloomberg News in August, the growth of electric vehicles will drive a doubling of demand for nickel by 2050. However, Bloomberg reports that  mining giant  BHP Bilton will invest in Australia to make it the world’s largest producer of nickel for electric vehicle batteries.

A final troubling issue with electric vehicles: disposal.  “The rise of electric cars could leave us with a big battery waste problem ”   according to The Guardian (August 10) , which cites the International Energy Agency estimates of  140m electric cars globally by 2030, resulting in a possible  11 million tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling.  Two solutions are profiled in the article: recycling and reuse. The recycling profile features the CEO of  Canadian battery recycling start-up company, Li-Cycle, which is pioneering a  wet chemistry process which would  retrieve all of the important metals from batteries. The  proponents of the re-use solution include Aceleron and carmaker Nissan, which has patented a process for re-use. The article states that  car batteries can still have up to 70% of their capacity when they stop being good enough to power electric vehicles, so that they can be broken down, tested and re-packaged for functions such as home energy storage.